Sex, blood, filth, incest, bodies piled up like firewood – and that’s just the first hour. Game of Thrones is loaded with heart-piercing surprises right from the opening scenes, as a little boy watches his father chop a man’s head off. Some of the biggest moments happen in secret behind closed doors; others stretch out across the kingdoms. But these are the saga’s greatest moments, the displays of love and hate that hit hardest – and loom largest – in Westeros history.
1. The Red Wedding
“The Rains of Castamere,” Season 3, Episode 9
A lull at the end of a wedding banquet – until Catelyn Stark hears the band play the Lannister fight song, “The Rains of Castamere.” Then she notices the guest next to her is wearing chain mail. She realizes something terrible is about to happen, but neither she nor we have any clue how ugly it will get. The Stark family goes down to defeat in 10 agonising minutes – except for Arya, whisked away by the Hound as he mutters, “It’s too late.” The Red Wedding is Walder Frey’s ultimate betrayal – and the ultimate Game of Thrones twist neither we nor the North can forget.
2. Ned Stark’s Farewell
“Baelor,” Season 1, Episode 9
This is the moment in Season One that served notice that the show was rewriting the rules of television storytelling. Right down to the final seconds of this scene, even as Ned Stark kneels on the executioner’s chopping block, it seems unthinkable that the ax will actually come down – he is the show’s central character, just as Sean Bean is by far the cast’s biggest star. But more than that, Ned is the only hero in the story, the last righteous man in all of Westeros. This shouldn’t happen. It can’t happen. Until it does. Even at the end, with one cryptic word – “Baelor!” – Ned Stark makes a selfless gesture to keep his daughter Arya alive.
3. Daenerys Unleashes the Dragons
“And Now His Watch Has Ended,” Season 3, Episode 4
The Mother of Dragons earns her name in a spectacularly regal victory. After she buys her Unsullied troops from the slave master of Astapor, he sneers, “The bitch has her army.” But then Daenerys Stormborn speaks a fateful line of Valyrian: “A dragon is not a slave.” His face is all horror as he realizes, “You speak Valyrian?” Her translator Missandei flashes the nastiest side-eye in TV history. The dragon spits fire on command. Daenerys is a queen now. This is her army, bitch.
4. The Trial of Tyrion
“The Laws of Gods and Men,” Season 4, Episode 6
A lifetime of bitterness explodes as Tyrion goes on trial for murder, framed for poisoning the hateful child-king Joffrey at the Purple Wedding. It’s an unforgettable performance by Peter Dinklage. He finally rages at his tyrant father, his twisted siblings and the corrupt family empire he’s spent his life defending, as he rants, “I wish I had enough poison for the whole pack of you!”
5. The Battle of Blackwater
“Blackwater,” Season 2, Episode 9
The epic battle for the Iron Throne, with Stannis Baratheon going up against Tywin Lannister. As always, Tyrion sums it up, when he’s giving his Henry V-worthy pre-battle pep talk to the soldiers of King’s Landing: “Those are brave men knocking at our door. Let’s go kill them.”
6. The Red Viper’s Final Duel
“The Mountain and the Viper,” Season 4, Episode 8
The dashing rogue of Dorne, Prince Oberyn Martell, is Westeros’ answer to Kanye West – he lives large, he loves the ladies, but he doesn’t always realize when it’s time to shut up and just get the job done. The Red Viper takes on the monstrous Mountain in a gladiatorial duel to avenge his sister’s rape and murder against the hated Lannister dynasty. For a few minutes there, it looks as if he’s got his victory wrapped up. And then – this is Game of Thrones, remember? – it all goes skull-splatteringly wrong.
7. The Battle of the Bastards
“The Battle of the Bastards,” Season 6, Episode 9
This showdown between Jon Snow and Ramsay Bolton is the most sprawling of Westeros’ many huge war scenes. It ends with a moment of canine justice as Jon lets his long-suffering sister Sansa deliver the coup de grâce: She throws Lord Bolton to his own hounds, who haven’t eaten in a week. Chow time for some peckish puppies; checkmate for House Bolton.
8. Viserys Gets His Crown
“A Golden Crown,” Season 1, Episode 6
This was the first time Game of Thrones killed off a major character who, by all the rules of TV logic, should have been untouchable. But there were a lot more deaths where that came from. Royal pretender Viserys Targaryen was a brilliantly despicable villain while he lasted, marrying off his kid sister Daenerys to Dothraki warrior Khal Drogo. Deluded, Viserys still believes he’s the Lord of the Seven Kingdoms. But when the pretty boy tries to throw his weight around and insults the Dothraki, Drogo gives him the crown he’s demanding – by pouring molten gold over his head. Daenerys gives her brother the harshest of sisterly epitaphs: “He was no dragon. Fire cannot kill a dragon.”
9. Hodor Holds the Door
“The Door,” Season 6, Episode 5
We finally find out what happened to the gentle giant Hodor – and it’s a sadder story than anyone could have imagined. The beloved, mentally disabled stablehand got his name in an accidental disaster caused by Bran Stark’s time-traveling mind – he valiantly holds the door against an attacking mob of wights, but that leaves him unable to say anything but a fractured version of “Hold the door.”
10. Arya Rides With the Hound
“Two Swords,” Season 4, Episode 1
So many strange friendships develop on Game of Thrones, but one of the most touching is the bond between the ruthless sellsword Sandor “The Hound” Clegane and the would-be child assassin he totes around, Arya Stark. He almost-accidentally mentors her in the fine art of murder. They fight together for the first time when a tavern brawl erupts into a full-blown massacre. All the Hound wanted was lunch (“I’m going to have to eat every fucking chicken in this room!”), but for Arya, it’s the moment she reclaims her childhood sword, Needle, and makes her bones as a killing machine. Even the Hound is impressed. This little princess just crossed the first name off her wish list of dead enemies. It won’t be the last.